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J'aime French Bakery: Direct from France, with carbs

Why Philadelphia? The young Frenchman said the signs kept pointing him there.

Chef-owner Bastien Ornano at J’aimi French Bakery, 212 S. 12th St.
Chef-owner Bastien Ornano at J’aimi French Bakery, 212 S. 12th St.Read moreMichael Klein

Philly is adding to its quotient of French bakeries this month.

The Kettle Black, a boulangerie from French couple Marc Basile and Claire Ogilvie, seems to be in the final stages of completion at 631 N. Second Street in Northern Liberties.

And now, hot out of the oven, is J'aime French Bakery (212 S. 12th St.), a bright, white pastry shop set up across the alley from 12th Street Gym in Washington Square West.

Chef/owner Bastien Ornano, 27, grew up in Aix-en-Provence and is a career-changer, having quickly given up the corporate life for the sugary world of meringues, tarts, eclairs, and crepes, with La Colombe coffee.

You'll see Ornano mostly through the glassed-in pastry room.

You grew up baking, right? 

Not that much. My love of baking started with crepes. The family tradition was every Saturday night, my dad would make crepes for the entire family. And I really enjoyed this time, because my dad [Jean Paul] always traveled a lot for his work. So basically, would leave Monday morning and come back to our house on Friday night. He would go all around France, and as well to Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. And right now he lives in Morocco. During the weekend, he was tired because he was traveling a lot, so he didn't do a lot of soccer with me. That would be the only time where the entire family would gather around my dad, and we would spend quality time with him. I really enjoyed that. I was maybe 9 or 10 when he taught me how to bake them. And then I just took over. So then I was the one baking the crepes for the entire family. So my dad would still be there, but then it was just like, "OK, you know how to bake them. You can do it for the family."

How did you get here?

I graduated from high school in 2007, then came to the States for one year to be an exchange student before I went to business school. I had asked them if they would accept my admission in one year, so I could go to the States, learn English, and then come back. I moved to Corona. Like the beer. After that, I went back to France, and I went to the EDHEC Business School in
Nice. My major was marketing and publication, and entrepreneurship. And after that, I did a fifth year in INSEEC Business School in Paris. Then I started to work as a business manager in an IT consultant company. My main clients were banks. Let's say you are one of my clients and you contact me and you're like, "OK, Bastien. Our bank wants to launch a new mobile app for online banking." My job would be to find the engineers. After two years, I was managing over 65 consultants. It was pretty tough, because I studied this job when I was 24, and I was managing a lot of people who were over 40, 50. When you're 25 and you're explaining to them how they should do their work, sometimes it's pretty hard, because they're like, "OK, you're a baby. We started working when you were not even born. So don't teach us how to do our work."

Surely you learned something.

Communication skills. How to manage people. And all kinds of different people. I really liked it. But after a year, it got like, it's always the same job. Really stressful. I used to work 60 hours a week. Never stops. I'm a hard worker, so I did not have a problem with that.

When did the pastry business figure into this?

Probably seven years ago. I was already in business school. I knew that I wanted to go to pastry school, but my parents were paying for my school, so I thought it was important for me to be done. And there is a problem that bakers have in France. They are really good bakers, but they are really bad managers. A lot of them go out of business just because they don't know how to do accounting, they don't know how to do marketing and managing their employees. So I thought it was important for me to have a good knowledge on that.

The second year of business school, I had this idea. My first idea, actually, was crepes. But then I thought that only crepes was not enough. And you also have a lot of people who do crepes in the States. I've always liked pastry, sweets.

How did you get your parents to come around?

My dad didn't talk to me for six months. My mom has always been the supportive one. My mom has always been like, "You need to do what makes you happy, because making money is great, but if you're miserable …" In France, I was working 12 hours a day and I wasn't having the best time of my life. She said, "You have only one life, so you should do whatever makes you happy."

With my dad, I had a really hard time because he paid for my studies. And he comes from a really, really poor family, and he made it to the top, and he started from nothing. So now money in his life plays a huge part. And he was really proud to tell his friends, "My son is only 24, but he's making that much money." I used to have an Audi, my first car was an Audi, and I would wear suits every day. So he was proud of his son for that. But being a baker in France is not that prestigious.

When did he come around?

I would say around his birthday, because I baked him a cake. He came to Paris for his birthday, because we bought him Céline Dion tickets because she was in Paris for his birthday. I baked him a cake. He got to finally try it, and he loved it, and he told me, "OK. I'm still a little bit mad, but at least you went to pastry school for something, because this is good. So I do think you have the talent, and now I'm with you."

Why did you decide to open a bakery in the U.S., and also in Philadelphia?

I fell in love with the country. I was in California, so I guess that's a pretty good state to fall in love with. But I love the American spirit.  People in my country are really negative, pessimistic. Most of them. Not all of them. Here, I feel like it's the opposite.

My dad saw a documentary about Philly on TV, and he really liked what he saw, the city. He told me, "I feel like it could be a European city." Because you have big buildings, but it's really spread out. So if you go over to Spruce Street or Pine Street, it could be England. So he really liked that. He saw also that they were a big French community, and also that a lot of people are going away from New York and coming here, and investing the money here, so the city is really starting to raise, or grow again. So he was like, "Yeah, you should go and maybe check it out." Before coming here, I went on the Internet to look at the competition. Do I have a lot of competition or not? Because I'm not the first French guy who thought about opening a bakery or a restaurant or something. In most of the cities, you can find four, five, six, seven French bakeries. So I did that. I didn't see that many bakeries in general, so I was like, "OK. I'm going to go."

And then, two weeks later in Paris, I met my girlfriend, Abbey.

You what?

She was just visiting Paris. Her best friend went to Drexel University and studied fashion, and she got to go to Paris to show her collection. Abbey had never left the country before, and she was like, "You know what? This year, I'm going to travel." She came to Paris for 10 days, and I met her the second day, and we started talking. And you know, "Oh, I'm planning on opening a business in the States. Where do you come from?" And she's like, "I'm from Philly."

I thought, "OK, that's a sign. My dad just talked to me about Philly two weeks ago, and now I'm meeting you, so Philly has to be the plan."

Then I went online. I tried to visit as many locations as I could. I found this one managed by [Bruno Pouget], a French guy who used to own Caribou Cafe. Same thing. I was like, "That's another sign. A French guy who used to be in the food industry." So became Philly because of that mainly, those two factors.

What are you making here that nobody else makes?

The merveilleux. The translation would be "marvelous." That's a specialty of the north of France/Belgium. Basically it's a meringue disc with whipped cream. Meringue disc on top, whipped cream all around it, and then you dip it into speculoos or chocolate, depending on what's your favorite. Mine is speculoos.

What do you like most about Philly?

The fact that it's a walkable city. The fact that in some parts of the city you feel like you're in Europe. Also, the pop-up beer gardens.

And what do you like least?

The weather.

J'aime French Bakery, 212 S. 12th St., is open from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekends.